Gujarat Assembly Election 2017: Congress, BJP target each other other's vote banks with communally-charged campaigns

Gandhinagar: Polls pulverise political parties, making them explore the range of antics from about turns to headstands.With love at a discount, all is fair in war and elections.

Gujarat, where elections are due in less than a month, is a case in point. Here we have the sanctimonious spectacle of the Congress vice-president going temple-hopping and the prime minister’s partymen courting maulvis to canvass for them. In what is increasingly veering towards a tight battle with the Congress playing the caste card as well if not better than the BJP, the ruling party is realising to its chagrin that there can be no pariahs in this poll, where every vote will count.

Moreso with the Congress strategising to neutralise the BJP propaganda of Muslim appeasement through a conscious resort to soft Hindutva. If the BJP is perturbed about Rahul's temple visits (20 in the past 50 days), the Congress seems disturbed over news that a team of maulvis will be campaigning for the BJP in minority-dominated areas of Gujarat. On 10 November, a meeting of the Congress minority cell was held to chalk out a plan to deal with the situation. Thereafter, it was decided that teams of their cell would resort to 'Gandhigiri' in areas where the maulvis descend for campaigning.

"We will go to the area and with folded hands and urge the clerics to concentrate on performing their religious duties and keep away from politics," said a cell member who did not want to be identified. Sources within the Gujarat BJP also indicate that the Rashtriya Muslim Manch, an affiliate of the RSS is sending in a contingent of Muslim clerics from BJP-ruled states to reach out to minority voters.

 Gujarat Assembly Election 2017: Congress, BJP target each other others vote banks with communally-charged campaigns

File images of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. PTI

Although the BJP has shied away from fielding Muslim candidates, it has already dispatched a contingent of Muslims from Maharashtra — owing their allegiance to their minority morcha — to campaign in Surat. The contingent is led by their national vice-president Irfan Ahmed. Surat and the surrounding areas including neighbouring Bharuch have a fair concentration of Muslims. A central Gujarat Muslim cleric who had joined the BJP with his followers, however, has reservations about the efficacy of imports with the local Muslim populace."The local leaders have a better understanding of the people and their bent of mind and will therefore be more effective than that of those who come from outside," he said.

In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first-ever visit to the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque along with Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in September needs to be seen in the critical context of the ensuing elections and the need to leave no stone unturned to score points. The entire visit of the Japanese prime minister, the Modi-Abe road show in Ahmedabad, the foundation stone-laying for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train and the Indo-Japanese business summit — all just three months before the elections — are seen as part of the party's pre-poll propaganda.

Modi, as chief minister, had refused to wear a skull cap offered by a Muslim delegation during his Sadbhavana fast in September 2011 at Ahmedabad. Interestingly, earlier this month, the prime minister received a Muslim delegation which also placed a headgear on him.

Help for the besieged BJP may also be forthcoming from the Uttar Pradesh-headquartered Rashtriya Ulema Council (RUC) that has already gone to town claiming that if the BJP and Congress do not meet its demand for allotting at least 18 seats it will put up its candidates in Gujarat. The RUC had put up 50 candidates in the Uttar Pradesh election and indirectly aided the BJP by splitting the Muslim vote. A similar scene may follow suit in Gujarat to split the anti-BJP vote.

Modi earned encomiums as the 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' (Hindu heartthrob) in post-Godhra Gujarat, moreso after his statewide Gaurav Yatra that saw rabid Muslim-bashing, but brought him bountiful seats in the election that followed in 2002. However, no sooner did he acquire national ambitions manifested in the three-day Sadbhavana fast in September 2011, that he sought to open a line to the minority community through Ahmedabad-based businessman Zafar Sareshwala, who was subsequently appointed chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad after Modi became prime minister.

None of this has however prevented covert attempts at communalising the situation as voting day nears. A cyber campaign is underway, built around communal issues. The campaign goes with the tagline "Congress is coming to fool you". A few sample lines follow:

"Once Indira Gandhi won elections with the cow as the poll symbol. Today, Congress seeks to win an election eating cow. Stay alert, Congress is coming to fool you."
"Congress had said Ram is imaginary, and is now visiting temples and seeking votes. Stay alert, Congress is coming to fool you."
"Rahul Khan (sic) had said temple goers tease women, and now he is going to temples in Gujarat. Stay alert, Congress is coming to fool you."
"Congress, which called 100 crore Hindus 'saffron terrorists' today speaks of harmony. Stay alert, Congress is coming to fool you."
"Congress did not pay heed to the plight of Kashmiri pundits and now goes to court for the Rohingya. Stay alert, Congress is coming to fool you."

These and many such messages are floating around cyberspace through WhatsApp and other such apps. As polling day nears, the messages get more vicious. A video clip doing the rounds shows the anxiety of a couple waiting for their daughter to return. Then it switches to the scared daughter walking home in the backdrop of  aazan being heard. As the daughter walks into the home, the worried parents breathe a sigh of relief and are heard saying, "Twenty-two years ago, this was the state of affairs when women were not safe." Then the daughter is heard saying that such a situation will never occur again as Gujarat has Modi. The clip ends with a tagline "Your vote, Your safety".

Sources say more such clips are doing the round, playing on the fear of Muslims and the strong Hindu leader image of Modi. The BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya has however denied that the party has anything to do with this campaign, although the Congress claims it is indeed the work of the ruling party. "It is quite simple. Who seeks to gain by sowing fear and creating insecurity in the minds of the people? Obviously, the BJP," countered Dr Manish Doshi of the Congress.

His party has launched an official counter-campaign that includes numerous memes with the tagline "Gujarat ne daraoso nahin (Don’t scare Gujarat)". It talks of atrocities on Patidars, Dalits, sexual exploitation of women in Naliya, Kutch and numerous other issues as well.

A scare was generated recently when red cross marks were noted outside the gates of Muslim societies in the Paldi area of Ahmedabad.Complaints to the Election Commission had the police swinging into action and coming up with an explanation that it was the handiwork of an overzealous municipal corporation supervisor who had marked stoppage locations for the civic garbage truck. Muslim residents remain unconvinced, but would prefer to wait and watch.

Updated Date: Nov 26, 2017 12:30:14 IST